From the Field: Musings on Work to Achieve the Dream

It’s convocation season! I love this time of the year. There is a comfort to the college convocation or opening day tradition and a rhythm that offers us, as educators, a chance to enjoy a second “new year.”  These events hold a contagious energy as we welcome new students and new and veteran faculty and staff “back” to campus. The feeling reminds me of the hope baseball fans hold right before Opening Day, the feeling explored by Doris Kearns Goodwin in her classic memoir, Wait Til Next Year. For full disclosure, I am a Baltimore Orioles fan (when I was 12 years old my life goal was to succeed Brooks Robinson at third base), which might make the title of my memoir Wait Til Next Decade.

Because of my role at Achieving the Dream, I am fortunate to have this unique opportunity to visit many campuses and participate in their opening days. Many of these opening days focus on launching or sustaining the student success work that colleges are engaged with through ATD. What’s interesting is that as important as these days are, we often, in the field, don’t take time to document their shapes or their intentions.

Last week I was part of the convocation at College of Southern Maryland (CSM) that was designed to launch their new work around student success in partnership with Achieving the Dream. Their president, Dr. Maureen Murphy, succinctly framed the “why” for the work in an email she sent in advance to the college community with this simple data story: Over 35 percent of Southern Marylanders are poor or working poor, as measured by the United Way’s ALICE Report. Some type of post-secondary education or training is required for a family wage, yet 30 percent of the adult population has no college degree; another 22% percent has some college, but no degree. There are good-paying, high-demand jobs in Southern Maryland that are going unfilled 80 percent of our graduates remain in Southern Maryland, yet half of our students who start in the Fall drop out by the following Fall.

President Murphy’s email set the tone for a tightly designed launch of the college’s Achieving the Dream work with a one-page framework that was easy to understand for all stakeholders: One Year, Two Questions, Three Teams. The one year is CSM’s first year in the ATD Network, labeled a year of discovery. The two questions: “Who are our students?” “What does it mean for them to be successful?” The three teams: The Core team, the Data team, and the College-Wide Data Squad. The College-Wide Data Squad is unique. It includes representatives from every college division and it will spend time learning from students to present their findings on what is called “CSM Day.”

I love this design. It’s tempting to begin this work by jumping in. By taking action. By acting on hunches. Because the work is that important. But as Hal Gregersen reminds us via Paul Drucker in his new book, Questions are the Answer, “The important and difficult job is never to find the right answers. It is to find the right question. For there are few things as useless—if not dangerous—as the right answer to the wrong question.” CSM’s decision to kick off their journey with a year of learning and discovery is critical to their future success. Some may say this purposeful pause will slow them down and that it is counter to the sense of urgency we all feel for improvement when we see the gaps in the pieces of data shared by President Murphy. But I believe the design carves out the space necessary for organizational learning, observing, and listening, skills that are underrated in this institutional transformation work.According to Gregersen, “If you want to create plans that succeed, you must tamp down the impulse to transmit and instead switch over to receiving mode for some significant portion of your time.” Questions can knock down barriers to thinking.  Pausing, according to Gregersen and borrowing from Ernest Hemingway, gives questions “the clean and well-lighted place” they need to unfold.

CSM’s two questions will lead to shaping many more cause-to-wonder questions. As I looked at CSM’s two questions and some of their data, I posed several more for them to consider. I also encouraged them to tune into qualitative data and to actively seek it out. Gregersen refers to these data as passive data, information that has “no voice or clear structure or champion or agenda.” I think about the voice of our students and our need to take things that have been part of the backdrop of our work and “pull them to the forefront of your mind for a time” as Gregersen suggests. CSM is a college with strong fundamentals. They thrive on keeping things simple and aligned. Their work around student success will support the achievement of their strategic plan goals: 1) improve progress and completion, 2) support regional workforce needs, and 3) function as one regional college.

The One Year. Two Questions. Three Teams. framework will position them to learn more about the “why” behind their self-identified barrier to success in this work. They say, in their application to become part of the ATD Network, “We pilot things well. We struggle with bringing things to scale.” By taking a powerful and purposeful pause in this year of discovery, I am certain the college community will ask enough questions to understand why the current design of the CSM student experience is not optimal for all their students.


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